DeFlip Side #35: Genre TV 2004

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Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

Well, another TV season has come and gone, and has left a mangled mass of Science Fiction and Fantasy themed chum bobbing in its wake. Sift through the flotsam and jetsam of failed shows and you might fish out bits of Century City, a chunk of Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital, maybe get your hands smeared with some Jake 2.0. If you search the horizon you might catch a glimpse of Enterprise frantically paddling away on a leaky lifeboat, praying that it finds dry land before the next season is out. No, 2004 was not a good year for genre TV, be it a big hit show like Angel, or a forgotten after four-episode fluke like Wonder Falls.

So what’s left to look forward to? Well, Smallville is chugging along as strongly as ever on the WB. Hey, it’s Superman. Kind of hard to keep that guy down. And Joan of Arcadia got a second season out of CBS, proving that God is managing nicely in his own right. FOX has given Tru Calling another chance, though you never know when you might be able to see it with the way the network constantly screws with its schedule. ABC is bringing back Alias, albeit not until January. And UPN is moving Enterprise to Fridays at nine, to boldly continue sucking, no matter what time slot it’s in.

Slice it any way you will, it all adds up to pretty slim pickings for fans of genre television. The situation is grim, but don’t give up hope yet. There are still good viewing alternatives out there, if you know where to look.

The first thing you need to do is forget about the networks. If they’ve proved anything over and over again, it’s that they have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to bringing Science Fiction and Fantasy to the small screen. You might have your mavericks once in a while, like The X-Files or the aforementioned Smallville, but those shows are the exceptions that prove the rule. They stand out precisely because they somehow managed to find success where countless others have failed.

It’s small wonder that most genre shows tank, given today’s TV environment. A new show used to have at least a half season—about 13 episodes—before network bosses decided to ax it or not. But that luxury no longer exists. It is now becoming routine for networks to order only four episodes of a new show. And if the premiere fails to generate viewers or buzz, odds are that they’ll yank it after only the one episode. This is not a healthy state of affairs for genre shows, which tend to be more complicated by nature, and need time to be set up properly. So they go down in flames, one after another, like phoenixes that never had a chance to unfurl their wings.

The bad news is things are likely going to get even more cutthroat. The mass market is becoming increasingly fractured. And with the loss of guaranteed ratings-getters like Friends and Frasier, the networks are scrambling to fill the void—and grab as many of the dwindling advertising dollars as they can. That means they need instant hits at the lowest possible production costs. Hence the explosion of so-called reality shows with increasingly bizarre and sometimes downright distasteful premises. American Idol is bad enough. But now we have The Littlest Groom. Or how about The Swan, and Extreme Makeover? Both of which, apparently, seem to prey on desperately insecure women and hold contests to see which ones can mutilate themselves the most with unnecessary plastic surgery.

Mark my words: within the next two years, one of these shows, probably one on FOX, will follow a group of guys around as they try various penis-enlargement techniques, and offer a grand prize of a porn audition to the guy who winds up with the biggest schlonger. Hey, wait a minute…. That’s actually not bad. We’ll call it Mr. Big. Someone get me a meeting with Playboy TV!

So where were we? Oh yeah. Genre shows. I guess we’ve established that networks are a sucker’s bet. But thankfully, we live in the age of cable. And if you’re really looking to crest the next wave of good genre television, cable is where it’s at.

We’ll start with the obvious choice first. The Sci-Fi Channel is still cranking out original series and movies. And while most of them are crap, they do have something to offer to Stargate fans at least, with the new series Stargate Atlantis, along with the eighth season of Stargate SG1. They’ve also picked up Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, and have green lighted a new Battlestar Gallactica series. But what I’m really looking forward to is the stuff they have slated for later this year. November will see the return of Farscape with the four-part Peacekeeper War. And in December they’ll be premiering a miniseries based on Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, one of my favorite Fantasy book series of all time.

But there’s no need to wait that long. Some great stuff is already here. Chief among it for me is the premiere of the new season of Six Feet Under on HBO this weekend. Yes, the most entertainingly dysfunctional family of morticians is back for another go-round. Genre fans might not have thought to give Six Feet Under a look, since it’s not overtly genre themed. But any show that features a dead character that has as much screen time and influence on the storyline as the rest of the cast classifies as genre in my book. And even if you don’t agree, it’s still worth trying out since it’s probably one of the most well written, interesting shows ever produced—certainly the best thing on HBO; way better than The Sopranos.

If a more overtly fantastical premise better suits your fancy, look no further than Dead Like Me, coming back to Showtime on July 25 for its second season. If the continuing adventures of George, Rube and the rest of the squad of Grim Reapers are as quirky and fresh as the first season, then we’re in for some really great television. Dead Like Me is a real sleeper hit for Showtime and probably their first series deserving of wider recognition. Give it a shot and you’ll be hooked.

The Dead Zone is also back for a third season of second sight with Johnny Smith, played with surprising conviction by Anthony Michael Hall. Yes, the perennial geek of every 80s John Hughes flick has reinvented himself as Stephen King’s psychically tortured character, and given the USA Network such a ratings winner, that they reclaimed Dead Zone from the Sci-Fi Channel and added it to their own slate of original programming. While it’s not as funny or quirky as Six Feet Under or Dead Like Me, it’s an entertaining show and worth checking out.

Still, there will be nights when you’ll be wandering the wasteland of summer replacements with no oases. It is for this reason that God invented DVD players. Classic and cult television shows are coming out as fast as manufacturers are able to press them, and this week saw the release of the first season of Quantum Leap. Consigned to catching occasional reruns on the Sci Fi channel, fans have been clamoring for the series on DVD for years. Universal has finally given them the first eight episodes on three disks, as well as a new 20 minute featurette with Scott Bakula, Dean Stockwell and show creator Don Bellisario. Granted, the special features are a bit scrawny, especially for a fan like me who would have liked commentary tracks for the individual episodes, outtakes, and lost scenes. I guess well have to pin our hopes on the subsequent seasons, if they ever become available. For now it’s good enough for me just to see these pioneering episodes in their entirety for the first time since they originally aired.

Another DVD soon to hit shelves is the first season of Northern Exposure. Like Six Feet Under, Northern Exposure might have gone unnoticed by genre fans during its original run, since it was just a twist on the old fish-out-of-water premise, where New York doctor Joel Fleischman gets roped into working off his student loans in the remotest of remote towns, Cicely, Alaska. There he encounters the oddest cast of characters this side of The Twilight Zone. What made Northern Exposure stand out, aside from its excellent writing and original storylines, was its wholesale embrace of the utterly bizarre to put itself creatively over the top. The show took so many metaphysical left turns that I was astounded that it held on to such a large mainstream audience for as long as it did. Sadly, it’s not even in reruns currently. So the DVD will be a good chance to introduce yourself to the show for the first time, or to get to know it all over again.

And if all these suggestions still aren’t enough to keep you going, there are always good, old-fashioned, dependable reruns to turn to. It’s been great to finally see Star Trek Deep Space Nine again, thanks to Spike TV. But that’s a no-brainer. If you’re really looking for rerun gold, you have to get TV Land. Because TV Land is the only place where you will be able to see perhaps one the greatest genre sitcoms of all time.

I speak of none other than Green Acres. Yes, Green Acres, as in “dahling I love you but gimme Park Avenue.” To fellow fans out there, I need explain myself no further. But for those of you who think I’ve gone completely off my nut, you tell me how you would classify a show that features a pig that watches TV, roller-skates, goes out on dates and readily communicates with humans by means of apparently sentient grunts and squeals. How would you classify a show where chickens lay square eggs, ghosts knock the wheels off tractors and people can levitate? The best thing about Green Acres was that reality never got in the way of a good joke. If something was funny, it was fair game. As a result, the viewing experience is akin to going on an acid trip with a laugh track. Green Acres was certainly far ahead of it time, and stands out as so demented and brilliant that I rank it as one of the top five sitcoms ever made.

But hey, that’s just me. Whether you agree or not, the bottom line is that genre television fans are going to have to travel to increasingly esoteric locales to get the fix we need. Me, I’m lighting out for Hooterville to spend some time with Oliver, Lisa and Mr. Haney. So if you’re trying to look me up on the boob tube, Green Acres I’ll be there.

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